Fathom Mag

Surviving Ironman

Whenever people ask me why I wanted to do an Ironman, I usually shrug my shoulders and give the cavalier answer, “Why not?”

Published on:
April 11, 2017
Read time:
7 min.
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The line of athletes leading to the edge of the Ohio River stretched over two miles long. As I stood with my goggles in hand, the air full of the mixed smell of sunscreen and bananas, my watch showed that my heart rate was already well over one hundred. Apparently, the man standing next to me didn’t need to see my watch to notice my anxiety.

“Your first one?” he said.

“Yeah. You?”

“I’ve done this race a few years in a row now.”

“Any advice?”

“Have fun.” He smiled and patted me on the back and I tried to return his smile through teeth that wouldn’t stop chattering, whether because of the cold or the nerves I couldn’t tell. 

Was he serious? Did he even know what we were about to do? I began to question if he was the seasoned veteran he claimed to be. My conclusion: this guy is nuts.

A few minutes later I followed him into the water.

For those of you who don’t know, an Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run, or 140.6 miles in total. If you think that sounds impossible, you and I have a lot in common.

People always ask why I wanted to do an Ironman and I never feel like I have a good answer. When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory, a British mountaineer, famously responded, “Because it’s there.” Whenever people ask me about the Ironman, I usually shrug my shoulders and give an equally cavalier answer, “Why not?”

I needed to reevaluate my level of dependency on God. 

I can’t accurately describe the joy of swimming in a wetsuit for the first time after spending months training in a normal bathing suit. I felt, and looked, like a penguin, sleek and speedy but also kind of clumsy in an adorable way. As I grew accustomed to rotating my arms within the wetsuit in a normal swimming motion, I felt like I could fly (some recompense for flightless birds, I guess).

As I exited the water, I waddled over to the volunteers tasked with helping athletes remove their wetsuits. I began to struggle with the suit myself until a woman grabbed my wrist and ordered me to lie down. I obediently flopped to the ground, fearing a scolding. She expertly peeled the wetsuit off both my legs with one quick pull.

Till We Have Legs

“Keep going,” she said, as she handed me back my wetsuit and moved onto the next penguin headed her way. I gave her a thumbs up and walked clumsily (no longer in an adorable way) toward the transition area, where I changed and climbed onto my bike.

Only seven hours left on this seat.

An Ironman may sound like a strange way to test my level of dependence on God, but I needed something to challenge my life of self-sufficiency.

Growing up, I lived a life that epitomized comfortable Christianity. I did the whole youth group, small group, community group, life group, discipleship group thing, not once stepping outside my comfort zone, not once challenging my faith. 

I knew God was there for me when I needed him, but once he saved me from eternal damnation or whatever, I didn’t really think I needed him. I clung to a mentality that said, “Thanks for sending your son and everything, but I think I can take it from here.”

I didn’t realize that self-sufficiency is anything but self-sustaining.

And truthfully, no one ever talks about how natural it feels to rely on your own strength. Clichés like “Just trust God” and “Cast all your cares on him” may sound great to some people, but truth in trite packages didn’t resonate with me. I felt perfectly comfortable in my world of self-dependency, and even though I could explain to my youth group leader that I needed God, I usually did so with an internal roll of the eyes.

I didn’t realize that self-sufficiency is anything but self-sustaining.

One hour into the bike ride, I prepared to take my first gel shot. My nutrition plan required an intake of a thousand calories each hour, so I tore open the first squeezable package while trying to maintain control of my bike. I realized a moment too late that I should’ve practiced this because as I opened it, I immediately clinched my fist and chocolate goo exploded everywhere.

I spent the next three miles licking chocolate off my handlebars.

Two hours later, after climbing up and cruising down hills, avoiding multiple wrecks, and successfully finishing all my gel shots, I passed a road sign that said, “Louisville 25 miles,” and started to pedal a little faster. As I passed a small group of people cheering us on, a small five-year-old girl yelled, “I believe in you!” and I immediately started crying.

In that moment, I lost control of my emotions, and soon thereafter, control of the race.

Even inside my self-constructed house of self-sufficiency, I’ve lived anything but a perfect life. I’ve had hard things happen to me just like everyone else. I’ve experienced my fair share of storms and sure, I turned to God during those difficult times. But even when I answered his knocks on the door of my heart, I left him standing on the doorstep and lived with a faith that was circumstantial at best.

It took the greatest test of my physical abilities to teach me how to rely on someone other than myself.

I interacted with God only when it best suited me. Really, I put God in a church-sized box and let him sit on the porch outside my house like an unwanted Amazon package. Instead of allowing God to come into my life, I kept him in the church building where I saw him twice a week and a couple other times at funerals and weddings.

I didn’t bring him home with me in the way I interacted with my family. I didn’t bring him to school with me (except on the rare occasions when I had a hard test I hadn’t studied for). And I certainly didn’t bring him with me onto the sports field where I cursed like a character in a Scorsese film and built an identity on my own physical abilities.

Ironically, it took the greatest test of those physical abilities to teach me how to rely on someone other than myself.

The first 13.1 miles of the run seemed easy. Too easy. Feeling good, feeling great, I neared the end of the first loop only to realize the finish line sat less than 100 yards from where we turned around to begin the second loop of the marathon.

I could see people finishing directly in front of me. I could see the crowds. I could see the tunnel leading to the end of the race. 

And I turned right to run 13.1 more miles.

At this point, morale hit an all-time low. The pain that I had kept in the back of my mind for the past two hours started to creep its way forward. And just like that, the pain went from my mind to my entire body, instantly invading its way deep into my bones. As I turned to run the same course I had just finished, one of my friends jogged alongside me for a moment to see how I felt.

I told him the truth. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Really tired. Everything hurts.”

“You’re going to be okay,” he said.

I didn’t share his confidence.

Five miles later, after “running” two miles in thirty minutes, I forgot where I was and what I was supposed to be doing. I followed the crowds of people around me, but I looked at everything through a clueless haze. Tears filled my eyes and as I lost control of my bladder, the yellow liquid running down my leg made tracks that matched the tears sliding down my face.

“God. Help me. I need you.”

When you’ve grown accustomed to keeping God in a small portion of your life, the moment when you realize your desperate need for him can be pretty shocking. 

Suddenly, God had broken out of the box and into my house, shattering the walls of security I had built for myself. And inside this wreckage, all I could do was pray. In that instant, prayer changed from an accessory to a necessity.

It shouldn’t take some great tragedy or difficulty to make us aware of our desperate need for a Savior. This mile-twenty-one prayer should’ve happened years before this race. I should’ve fallen to me knees long before I ran on my feet. But it turns out, the only thing that kept me off my knees was me.

Until the Ironman, I had never prayed a prayer that I desperately needed answered.

I possessed a passive faith in an active God. Not once did I pray for anything I thought of as unrealistic. And even when I did pray for things I thought difficult for God to accomplish, I closed those prayers with “but your will be done,” as if God needed me to give him a cop-out in case he couldn’t follow through on my request. 

My expectations of him were so small that I never opened myself up to the possibility that God might do great things in and through my life. Until the Ironman, I had never prayed a prayer that I desperately needed answered.

But shouldn’t we pray that type of prayer every day?

I will forever associate the taste of chicken broth and flat coke with the Holy Spirit. A friend told me to drink both if I got into trouble, and even though I didn’t believe him at the time, I figured it couldn’t possibly make me feel any worse.

After forcing the warm broth down my throat and chasing it with the cool soda for two aid stations in a row, I started to feel my legs again and remembered where I was and what I was doing. Suddenly, I started running again, and let me tell you, eleven-minute miles have never felt so fast.

J. D. Wills

Three miles later, I saw the finish line for the second time that day. I walked to try to soak it all in, but with the bright lights and the tears in my eyes, I couldn’t see a thing. The crowd cheered, they said my name over the loudspeaker, I saw my family and friends, and in that moment, I saw a small glimpse of what the gates of heaven will look like.

As I crossed the finish line and stumbled into my mom’s embrace, all I heard was, “I love you.”

Don’t wait until you’re 135 miles into a 140.6-mile race to pray for help. Pray now. We desperately need God every single day. The sooner we not only recognize our dependence on him but understand it as well, the sooner we can live a life fully devoted to a God who wants to do great things in and through us.

I’m still in the process of learning this lesson, but I think when we learn how to be faithful in prayer, God will speak back. And from my experience, his voice sounds a lot like the voice of experienced veterans, efficient volunteers, innocent children, faithful friends, and loving family.

Have fun. Keep going. I believe in you. You’re going to be okay. I love you.

J. D. Wills
J.D. Wills is a copywriter by day, ghostwriter by night, and creative writer in between. He writes at his personal website (www.jdwills.com) where he has a monthly newsletter for anyone interested in words—how they look, how they sound, and how they sometimes make you laugh.

Cover image courtesy of J. D. Wills.

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